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Why Groups Fail (Hint: For the Same Reasons that Nations Fail)

To solve the problem of abuse by power-hungry leaders, the first step must be the adoption of a worldview that makes it obvious.

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By David Sloan Wilson

Some experiments are like a good play, compressing profound truths into compact form. That’s how I felt when I read a 2010 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology titled “Divide and Conquer: When and Why Leaders Undermine the Cohesive Fabric of their Group” by Charleen R. Case and Jon K. Maner at Northwestern University1.

The article describes a series of experiments that reveal the perverse tendency of leaders to undermine the goals of their group to maintain their position of power. The participants were college students earning research credits in their introductory psychology class. The students were led to believe that they were leaders of a group of three other students doing a verbal problem-solving task. The better the performance of the group, then the better the chance of winning a cash prize in a raffle drawing. As leader, the student could control how other members of the group interacted with each other and how the reward was distributed, to varying degrees depending upon the different versions of the experiment.

The students were also led to believe that one member of the group was especially talented at the task. In some versions of the experiment, the student’s role of leader was assured but in other versions the leadership role could be reassigned by a vote of the group.

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Like a play, all of this was made up. There were no groups—just a tissue of lies (innocent enough to be approved by a human subject review board) told to the students by the researchers. One thing was not fictional, however: Each student completed a survey called the Achievement Motivation Scale (AMS), which measured the degree to which they enjoyed having power over other people (dominance motivation) as opposed to wanting to be respected by other people (prestige motivation).

The field of social psychology has been criticized for some of these methods, including over-reliance on college students as representatives of humanity and the use of deception. The field of behavioral economics, which is really just social psychology by another name, forbids deception as a research method. Another concern is whether the elaborate ruse is likely to work. After all, the incentives for the students to get sucked into the play are extraordinarily weak.

Nevertheless, we are a dramaturgical species and the study has one great virtue that compensates for its weaknesses—the comparison of differences, including differences between students who are motivated to seek dominance vs. prestige and differences between the various experiments, which alter the imaginary social environment with surgical precision. What were the results?

In a nutshell, students motivated by dominance (but not students motivated by prestige) sabotaged their groups when their leadership position was threatened, but not otherwise. They did this (in different versions of the experiment) by limiting the ability of the most talented group member to send messages to other group members, by isolating the most talented group member in a separate room, and by preventing the most talented group member from socially bonding with the other members. All of these tactics were clearly detrimental to the objectives of the group as a whole, abusing the student’s role as group leader.

Just as a good play encapsulates what takes place in the real world, evidence for power-hungry individuals abusing their leadership roles can be found all around us—so much that once cued to the fact, one wonders why the experiments needed to be performed in the first place. But cueing—another dramaturgical word– is necessary. Much of the time, we think and act in ways that are oblivious to the dangers of leaders abusing their power and are taken by surprise when it happens.

An example that made the news in 2014 concerns toxic leadership in the American armed forces. By a series of coincidences, an anthropologist was thrust into the position of investigating the high suicide rate of soldiers during the Iraq war. He discovered that while suicide-prone soldiers had their own problems, they were often pushed over the edge by toxic leaders. Once discovered in this indirect way, toxic leadership began to be recognized as a systemic problem in the military. Here is how toxic leadership is currently defined in the army’s “leadership bible” (go here and here for more): “Toxic leadership is a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance.”

Sounds just like the social psychology experiments, right? But if the problem of leaders abusing their power is obvious, then why was the U.S. Army ambushed by it and why did one retired general call it an “institutional cancer”?

The military isn’t the only institution riddled by cancerous leaders. Business organizations are also afflicted. A classic ethnography of a business corporation titled Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, by the sociologist Robert Jackall, reads like a real-life version of those social psychology experiments. As the description of the book on Amazon.com puts it: “Robert Jackall takes the reader inside a topsy-turvy world where hard work does not necessarily lead to success but sharp talk, self-promotion, powerful patrons, and sheer luck might.”

I have read enough of the business and management literature to realize that the entire concept of leadership taught in most business schools and the structure of most business organizations (at least in the United States) is setup for the kind of abuse by power-hungry leaders illustrated by that elegant social psychology experiment.

Clearly, something is happening that requires a reflection on the concept of “obvious”. Nothing is obvious all by itself; only against the background of other beliefs. Certain worldviews obscure the problem of toxic leadership, even though the problem is not only in front of our faces but slaps our faces again and again. To solve the problem of abuse by power-hungry leaders, the first step must be the adoption of a worldview that makes it obvious.

One such worldview is evolutionary theory, in particular Multilevel Selection (MLS) theory, which has an extraordinary range of applications in the biological sciences and is only beginning to appear on the radar screen of the human social and behavioral sciences2. Evolution is relentlessly relative. It doesn’t matter how well an organism survives and reproduces in absolute terms, only relative to others in its vicinity. Against this background, individuals who strive to maximize their relative standing in a group, even at the expense of the whole group, aren’t surprising. They are at the core of the theory. The main puzzle is to explain how individuals evolve to behave for the good of their group in ways that might decrease their relative advantage within the group.

The solution to that puzzle is a process of selection among groups in a multi-group population. Once again, the logic is relentlessly relative, which means that a group can sabotage a multi-group organization as easily as an individual can sabotage a group. MLS theory doesn’t make everything nice, but it does specify the conditions required for any group to function as a corporate unit (reminder: the word “corporate” is derived from the Latin word for “body”). If the group isn’t organized to prevent disruptive self-serving behaviors from within, then fuggedaboutit.

The retired general was right to call toxic leadership in the Army an “institutional cancer”. Toxic leaders aren’t just a bunch of bad apples in a barrel that need to be tossed out. They are employing a social strategy that works for them, given the institutional structure of the U.S. Army. If they were tossed out, they would quickly be replaced by other power-hungry people in a leadership position smart enough to adopt the same strategy. The current institutional structure breeds toxic leaders, not by genetic evolution of course, but by the selection of social strategies in behaviorally flexible individuals. The only solution to this problem is a change in the institutional social environment. The same goes for the structure of many business corporations, which are perversely designed for self-serving disruptive strategies on the part of power-hungry leaders to succeed.

The retired general’s use of the word “cancer” was more apt than he probably knew. Real cancers illustrate the same phenomenon—cells that are perversely adaptive according to the relentlessly relative logic of evolution, by spreading at the expense of other cells within a multi-cellular organism. Eons have natural selection at the level of multicellular organisms has resulted in mechanisms that suppress cancerous cells, along with other infectious agents, to a remarkable degree—our immune systems (go here and here for more).

The same story can be told for human genetic evolution3. Chimpanzee societies are despotic in human terms. Our species is different because our ancestors became talented at suppressing disruptive self-serving behaviors within groups, so that the best way to succeed was as a group. We are psychologically adapted to suppress cancerous social strategies in the same way that our bodies are physiologically adapted to suppress cancer and other infectious agents. Our psychological immune system operates spontaneously and largely beneath conscious awareness. We don’t have to think about according high status to cooperative members of our group (prestige) or punishing cheaters. We just do it in the same way that our B-cells churn out antibodies. Of course, these mechanisms only suppress disruptive self-serving behaviors in our species, which are an ever-present danger, just as cancer is an ever-present danger for multi-cellular organisms. The basic logic MLS theory applies to both.

Our psychological immune system evolved in the context of small groups with a relatively even balance of power and did not prepare us for the larger societies that emerged with the advent of agriculture. These societies therefore became despotic, ironically more like chimp societies than small-scale human societies. Fortunately, cultural evolution is a multi-level process, no less than genetic evolution, and the largely cooperative mega-societies of today a product of ten thousand years of cultural group selection, largely but not entirely in the form of warfare4. Once again, MLS theory doesn’t make everything nice. It specifies the conditions under which groups of any size evolve—or fail to evolve—into corporate units. It is up to us as policy selection agents to make things nice with the insights provided by MLS theory5.

Charleen R. Case and Jon K. Maner, the researchers who conducted the social psychology experiments, are gratifyingly aware of the evolutionary big picture. Their introduction includes a discussion of primates, human genetic evolution, and evolutionary psychology, which would have been unheard of in a social psychology journal 20 years ago. The more the evolutionary worldview gains traction, then the more obvious the problem of toxic leadership will become and the more effective we will be at doing something about it.

Their elegant experiments contain the seeds of policy prescriptions. They were able to turn disruptive self-serving behaviors in power-hungry students on and off with their experimental treatments. Real social organizations can do the same with their institutional arrangements. Leadership can be bestowed upon individuals who are motivated to seek the respect of their peers rather than individuals who seek power for its own sake, with the important proviso that prestige-hungry individuals might become excessively loyal to their group at the expense of a multi-group social organization. It’s multilevel selection all the way up and down. Knowing this, the selection of individuals, combined with the selection of institutional design, can bring cancerous social strategies under control to a much greater degree than they are now.

There is one important body of knowledge that Case and Maner do not cite, based on the work of the political scientist Elinor Ostrom, who was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 2009 for showing that groups are capable of managing common-pool resources (avoiding “the tragedy of the commons”) if they possess certain design principles 6,7. These principles make great sense from a multilevel evolutionary perspective, as an article that I co-authored with Ostrom and her postdoctoral associate Michael Cox describes in detail 8. Simply put, groups that implement the core design principles are strongly protected against disruptive self-serving behaviors from within.

Once Ostrom’s work is generalized from a multilevel evolutionary perspective, it can be extended beyond common-pool resource groups to include all groups whose members must work together to achieve common goals. In a sense, working together is itself a common pool resource vulnerable to the tragedy of abuse unless core design principles are in place.

Seeing this clearly with the help of the right theory has led me to work with a team of colleagues in the behavioral sciences to create a practical framework for improving the efficacy of groups called PROSOCIAL. Through an Internet platform and network of facilitators, we can help any group, anywhere in the world, work better by adopting the core design principles, along with other insights derived from multilevel evolutionary theory. To learn more, please visit PROSOCIAL Magazine, which has been newly launched to serve our growing community of groups.

A final point is that the relentlessly relative logic of MLS theory is scale-independent. It applies to nations, multinational corporations, and global commons issues such as the climate and world economy, no less than a single business or imaginary groups of four people working on a verbal problem-solving task. Compare Case and Maner’s elegant experiments on why groups fail with Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s big history book on why nations fail. You will see that when it comes to Multilevel Selection, all the world’s a stage.

1) Case, C. R., & Maner, J. K. (2014). Divide and Conquer : When and Why Leaders Undermine the Cohesive Fabric of Their Group, 107(6), 1033–1050.

2) Wilson, D. S. (2015). Does Altruism Exist? New Haven: Yale University Press.

3) Boehm, C. (2011). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. New York: Basic Books.

4) Turchin, P. (2015). Ultrasociety: How 10,000 years of war made humans the greatest cooperators on earth. Storrs, CT: Baresta Books.

5) Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. (2014). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, 395–460.

6) Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The Evolution of institutions for collective Action. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

7) Ostrom, E. (2010). Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems. American Economic Review, 100, 1–33.

8) Wilson, D. S., Ostrom, E., & Cox, M. E. (2013). Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90, S21–S32. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jebo.2012.12.010

2016 August 14


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  • l777l

    The references are nice. But a few words on how the military’s structure fails would have been necessary. Not to mention that the military would presumably be the institution least likely to fail in terms of group performance, achievement of group-level goals.

  • Helga Vierich

    This is a brilliant insight that twins with other recent confirmation of the human weakness for self-affirmation fallacy explored in the work of Paul Piff and his colleagues. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuqGrz-Y_Lc

  • OllieJones

    Very interesting piece, thanks.

    One small critique. The author wrote, “The retired general’s use of the word “cancer” was more apt than he probably knew.” On the contrary, I bet he said exactly what he meant. The author could have written “The analogy to cancer is far-reaching.”

    Don’t underestimate senior military officers! (In the same way, don’t underestimate business people or politicians.) They are the people who can apply the results of research leadership.